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The Game of Love: Competitive Dating in the 1930s

Competitive dating

The Roaring 20s party collided headfirst into the 1929 stock market crash. Courtship had given way to dating as we discussed in The Invention of Dating. But, competitive dating was rising, partially due to the financial crises in the 1930s.

13-15 million workers lost their jobs at the height of The Great Depression in 1933. Scarcity was a common theme, and this mindset may have impacted dating life in this decade as well. Competitive dating, or “The Rating and Dating Complex” (by sociologist Willard Waller) dominated youth culture.

A Public Affair

Mary McCoomb wrote in her book, Great Depression and the Middle Class, concerning competitive dating in the 1930s,

The goal of dating was attaining general popularity with peers, not embarking on a serious romance with one partner. 

Dating had become a full-fledged public affair. As you’ll recall from A Dating Tradition Worth Bringing Back?, courtship took place in parlor rooms and under parental supervision before the 1920s. The family and the local community held authority. But, once dating went public, along with the proliferation of media (radio, magazines, movies, and books), young people heard from others about what was “in.”

Authority transferred from parents to peers. Ken Myers says in Wandering Towards the Altar, “from the late 1930s on, young people knew, down to the percentage point, what their peers throughout the country thought and did.” Perception and appearance became everything. As Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat, notes,

The concept of dating value had nothing to do with the interpersonal experience of a date–whether or not the boy (or girl, for that matter) was fun or charming or brilliant was irrelevant. Instead the rating looked to others: ‘pass in a crowd’ does not refer to any relationship between the couple, but to public perceptions of success in the popularity competition.

A young man couldn’t trust his visual senses. Everybody else, especially magazines, had a say.

  • Mademoiselle, 1938: “She must be attractive if she can rate all that attention.”
  • Woman’s Home Companion: ‘No matter how pretty you may be, how smart your clothes–or your tongue–if you have no dates your rating is low…The modern girl cultivates not one single suitor, but dates, lots of them…Her aim is not a too obvious romance but general popularity.’

What made someone attractive?

Attractive Dating Features in the 1930s

On college campuses, Willard Waller noted certain features made one more attractive for dating.

Collegiate Men Attractive Features

Competitive dating 1930s

Waller points out men “… must belong to one of the better fraternities, be prominent in activities, have a copious supply of spending money, be well-dressed, ‘smooth’ in manners and appearance, have a ‘good line,’ dance well, and have access to an automobile.”

Money seemed to be the dominant feature, and it hasn’t changed much today. Etiquette was also important. Pick-up lines aren’t a modern invention. Having a “good line” meant the young gentleman had to exhibit passion and personality to gain a girl’s attention. The purpose of the “line” was to convince the girl he was madly in love with her. As Kevin White notes in The First Sexual Revolution, “calling demanded ‘character’ of men, while dating demanded ‘personality.'”

Collegiate Women Attractive Features

college girl to go steady

Waller notes, “The factors which appear to be important for girls are good clothes, a smooth line, ability to dance well, and popularity as a date. The most important of these factors is the last…”

For girls, desirability and popularity were the most important features for a girl to possess. Many girls would have flowers and notes sent from home to appear “in demand.” The girls who dated the most guys were considered the most popular as a date. A girl who could resist “going steady” was most desirable. It was a delicate cycle. As Beth Bailey wrote, “You had to rate in order to date, to date in order to rate. By successfully maintaining this cycle, you became popular.”

Competitive dating must have been stressful Some yearned again for the simpler times. As Willard Waller, lamented, “According to the old morality a kiss means something, a declaration of love means somethings, and number of Sunday evening dates in succession means something…”

Old moralityWaller, W. (1937). The Rating and Dating Complex. American Sociological Review, 2(5), 727-734. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2083825

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